If nature opened an amusement park I know exactly where it would be. Just before the North American continent tapers down to the narrow isthmus that is Panama, lies the jewel of Central America: Costa Rica. Translated, pura vida means: Pure life, which aside from being the national motto, aptly describes the philosophy of this tropical country that is nearly the size of the entire state of West Virginia.
Arriving at the outskirts of the capital San Jose, it became readily apparent that my theme park analogy wasn’t all that off the mark. On the plane and on line through customs, conversations with my fellow arrivals had them heading off to various corners of the country as if they were different sections of an amusement park: Steamy Tortuguero, the beaches of arid Guanacaste, and the lush mountains of Monteverde and Arenal. The latter was my first stop, and after an adventurous three hour drive spent leapfrogging slow-moving vehicles around impossibly curving roads, our party arrived at the tourist hub of La Fortuna. The town itself is hardly an attraction. Rather it is its location alongside the imposing Arenal volcano that places it on the tourism map. Dominating the landscape and visitors’ itineraries, this volcano is no sleeping giant. It is and has been continuously active for some time. In fact, a highlight of my visit was standing outside our rental car at night on the far side of the mountain and watching spurts of glowing red appear and dissolve in the darkness. It is, admittedly, a bit disconcerting when every so often a rumble reverberates through the jungle, but somehow visions of Pompeii are little deterrent to nature lovers the world over who come to see Costa Rica’s biological bonanza up close and personal.
Though my itinerary was filled with active interests such as rappelling down a jungle gorge and rafting the wild whitewater of the Rio Toro, it was our time spent relaxing at Tabacon Hot Springs that made the greatest impression. Situated west of town and at the base of the northern slope of the Arenal volcano, this highly-manicured collection of natural hot springs and secluded man-made pools convey a sense of Eden—especially for those who splurge on the pricey spa treatments available. Soaking in the sometimes scalding water, once again the theme park analogy popped into my head, with the names Relaxland and Paradiseland the frontrunners for its moniker. And just like a theme park, when the sun went down and the brilliant colors of hanging heliconia plants faded in the dusk, the discreet lighting around the cascading pools emitted an ambiance of an all-natural Disney World. Pura vida indeed.
With the adrenaline still fresh in our systems, our party set off to immerse ourselves in the abundant wildlife to be found, and our destination of choice was Carara National Park—a swath of rainforest hugging the picturesque Pacific Coast. To our delight the encounters started even before we arrived. Crossing the TarcolesRiver, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of crocodiles ranging from 4 to 12 feet long lazing along the banks of the muddy water. At the park entrance we opted to hire a naturalist guide, and in hindsight this was the best decision we made the entire trip. Had we not done so, I’m convinced that we would have missed 90% of the things we saw, from an adorable family of capuchin monkeys to dozens of birds to a vividly-colored poison arrow frog.
After all that activity we found it necessary once again to rest, and for that we headed to the laid-back, somewhat Bohemian beach town of Montezuma, located at the tip of the unspoiled semi-arid Nicoya Peninsula. Pura Vida echoed in my head every morning as I awoke to the sound of raging surf and playful monkeys clambering through the trees outside my window. Popular with surfers, the Nicoya Peninsula is more than just a great place to catch some waves. A half hour hike brought us to magnificent MontezumaFalls and its refreshing pools. The next day I got to see them from an entirely different perspective while on one of the many canopy tours available, though ‘tour’ is hardly the right word since the entire experience involves zip-lining across stretches of the upper levels of the rainforest. There is truly very little to compare with the experience of soaring from treetop to treetop on a cable several stories off the ground while watching the menagerie of the jungle whir past your feet. Let’s see a theme park beat that.
As with all good things, my time in Costa Rica eventually came to an end. I had come to taste the pure life, and found that the taste was indeed as sweet as advertised. And as the plane lifted high above the green mountains and steaming volcanoes I mused that Costa Rica was one theme park that was certainly worth the price of admission.